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Australian workers show a strong preference for part-time work. So how can practices best balance the needs of staff requesting fewer hours with the demands of the business? By Angela Tufvesson
Dr Chris Sanzaro’s busy Launceston practice, The Dental Surgery Newstead employs 22 staff, and of these, 18 work part-time, including the boss himself. “I’ve recently reduced my clinical hours to three days a week because I’m on the executive of the Australian Dental Association and I have two young kids,” he says.
Other part-time staff work reduced hours for a range of reasons, including to manage family or caring responsibilities, university study, a second job in another practice or adjacent field, or simply to have more time for hobbies. “Part-time work gives people a bit more interest and variety as they’re able to do other things during the week rather than just work for the weekends,” says Dr Sanzaro.
Employing a sizable number of part-time staff—who work fewer than 38 hours a week on regular days—is a trend reflected in many Australian workplaces. A 2019 report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found we have one of the highest shares of part-time workers across all OECD countries, with 31 per cent of people working part-time.
Women comprise 70 per cent of the part-time workforce in Australia, and a similar pattern likely plays out in dental practices around the country.
“Whether it’s someone coming into the practice who already has children and caring responsibilities, or someone who’s been in the business and has gone on maternity leave and returned, it’s certainly something that is quite common,” says Bethan Flood, general manager of Prime Practice HR Solutions.
Shifting perspectives linked to the pandemic are also inspiring dentists to work fewer hours. “I’ve certainly seen a number of dentists, particularly after COVID-19, look to step back to part-time work,” says Flood. “It’s made them re-evaluate their working patterns.”
Dr Sanzaro says part-time work may be more common in smaller cities or regional areas with lower costs of living. “I daresay it does vary depending on what the housing costs are and what sort of financial pressure people are under.”
Less is more
It’s a common belief that part-time workers aren’t as dedicated or career focused as their full-time counterparts, but Dr Sanzaro says the opposite is true of his staff. “A part-time worker is committed 100 per cent of the time they’re here,” he says. “If they don’t want to work full-time, they’re not going to be committed in a full-time job—they’re going to be thinking about what else they can do and how they don’t want to be here.”
In fact, Dr Sanzaro says his part-time staff stay with the practice for longer because they’re satisfied with their reduced-hour roles. “If I’m able to find the right person for the job and they only want to work a certain number of hours, if we can make that work, we get less staff turnover as a result,” he says.
Flood agrees, explaining that practices willing to be flexible promote loyalty among employees—both existing and new. “When you agree to a part-time arrangement for someone who’s already with you, you keep a motivated, committed employee who knows your business inside out,” she says. “It’s a huge loss if someone walks out the door, in knowledge and in terms of dollars.
“If it’s a new person coming in, you’re getting commitment and motivation because you’ve agreed to support them through whatever it is that’s going on outside work.”
Plus, there’s the benefit of expanding the talent pool of potential employees and the opportunity to employ staff with a broad patchwork of experiences and personalities. Dr Sanzaro says this is especially valuable in small practices. “It’s nice to have a variety of different people around, and people are less likely to form cliques,” he says.
Owing to responsibilities outside work, Flood says part-time workers “normally have good time management because they have to manage their tasks and timeframe”. And, unlike casuals who can knock back shifts, part-timers work consistent days and hours. “That’s a real positive for a practice,” says Flood.
Making it work
Despite the benefits, Dr Sanzaro says employing part-time staff can be challenging. There’s more people to manage, a complex roster to organise and procedures that must support staff who work together infrequently. The solution? Detailed communication and solid systems.
“We find a lot of our communication is emails rather than meetings,” says Dr Sanzaro. “We also have a whiteboard in the staff room where we share what’s changed in terms of policies or procedures. There’s a little check box where each staff member has a place to put their initials to say they’ve read it. We’re big on implementing checklists for all of our daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, six-monthly and yearly tasks.”
As for handover procedures, he says dentistry accommodates a part-time workforce well. “You’ve got to have everything documented in the patient’s casenotes anyway,” says Dr Sanzaro. “If a receptionist takes a call from a patient inquiring about something and it’s not going to be resolved straight away, those details go into the patient’s file. If they call back and speak to a different receptionist, in 20 seconds worth of reading they should be able to be across whatever’s going on.”
It’s important to note that while certain groups of employees are eligible to request flexible working arrangements—such as parents, people with disabilities and the over-55s—practices can refuse on ‘reasonable business grounds’.
Flood recommends taking time to reflect on what your practice needs before agreeing to requests for part-time work. “Don’t just agree to part-time without really looking at whether it’s going to work for the practice,” she says. “Work with the staff member—promote open communication to make sure it works for both parties.”